Wednesday, January 4, 2012

E-Books, readers, and publishers--some thoughts on a Raging Controversy

I've blogged before about libraries and the problem of e-books and publishers' attitudes; this is about Us, the Readers. There is a Heated Discussion taking place, at Dear Author and at Whatever. Robin L thinks it's reasonable and not mean to bitch at authors about the prices of their e-books; John Scalzi thinks only a massive sense of entitlement would cause people to bitch about the prices of e-books, and that it's somehow especially ignorant of readers to think that they're not really the customers publishers think about.

But here's the thing: For most of the existence of the modern book publishing industry, until really just the last few years, there was no economically sensible way for publisher to focus on the the end user, the reader, as the  primary customer. However much they care about the reader as the end user, they have mainly marketed to the  wholesalers and retailers, since those were the only practical routes for reaching the readers. The lovely, knowledgeable quote from Patrick Nielsen Hayden boils down to, "We know we need to focus on the readers as customers, we're working on it, we're not there yet."

We're not the customer yet. This remains true even though, yes, most publishers have web-based means to sell directly to readers. Some even promote those channels somewhat. Of course, you could also buy direct from the publisher in the pre-digital age, via good, old-fashioned snail-mail. And some people did. But not in sufficient numbers, then or now, for that channel to be at all significant in how publishers market their books.

Among the few publishers I could name who really do behave as if the readers are primary customers is Baen Books. They've been focusing on the reader as primary customer for e-books for many years. They've built a community, they offer free samples, they offer Deals aimed at encouraging the reader to buy directly from them and to regard them as a, if not the, major source of the kind of sf and fantasy specialize in.

And yes, Tor.com has improved a lot. In most respects, I like it better than the Baen site; it's more compatible with my own tastes, it's visually more attractive, the content, as a website to read, is more attractive. There is, in many ways and from my perspective, a lot more substance there.

But, with all due respect to Patrick Nielsen Hayden and all the other wonderful people at Tor who have made it what it is, I still get the feeling that, as far as marketing their books is concerned, it's aimed at causing me to look for Tor products at the e-tailers and retailers I would patronize anyway. I feel valued as a fellow reader; I don't get the sense they want me to buy directly from them. I don't feel like the Valued Customer there.

Then there's the question of pricing. I'm going to leave aside Robin L's misguided and unkind belief that it makes sense to bitch at authors who, unless they are self-publishing, have absolutely zero input on the pricing of their books in any format. It's not helpful, and as far as I'm concerned, it's not the point.

The point, from my viewpoint, is that publisher act like e-books are a threat to their real business, and a Major Threat of Piracy. PNH, John Scalzi, and other publisher-side commenters on this discussion have emphasized the ways in which e-books don't cost that much less to produce, and I would almost say, in the comments I've seen, haven't necessarily talked about the ways in which they can be an added cost to produce, depending on what you're starting from as your source file.

What they've missed entirely are the ways in which they sell us less when we buy an e-book.

The extra proofing to convert from a PDF file, when necessary, often doesn't happen. I've seen books from major publishers where truly inexcusable nonsense has been allowed to slip through--for instance a book from a major publisher, by an author who is a major seller in her category, where I quickly realized that whenever a word appeared that  began with the first three letters of a certain character's four-letter name, there was going to be a Problem. That might have been understandable in a self-published book, but this was, as I said, a major publisher and a high-selling author. Allowing the e-book to go out that way is lazy and unprofessional, and no, sorry, doesn't show much respect for the reader.

And no, it wasn't like the little typos that can get overlooked in any print book. It was glaring, obvious, and an error that was introduced in the conversion process. No one looked.

In addition to that, when we buy an e-book, we don't really own it. We don't get all the rights we get when we buy a print book. We can't sell it when we're done, pass it on to a friend, and in most cases we can't even lend it to a friend. Unless we are willing to violate the DMCA, we can't even read it on any device that we want, or expect to still "own" that book if we switch to a different device, because, out of the same kind of irrational, crippling terror of digital distribution that got the music industry assaulted by file-sharing and shackled by Apple's iTunes, most e-books come pre-damaged by DRM.

You cannot win in the long run by telling your customers you regard them as thieves first and customers last. The music industry still hasn't accepted that; that's why we're confronted with the threat of SOPA, which would cripple the internet in the name of preventing piracy.'

This isn't new. The photocopier, the vcr, the camcorder all faced the same kind of short-sighted opposition, the demand that these devices which obviously existed solely for the purpose of infringing copyright should be either banned, or loaded down with fees and restrictions that would make them nearly useless.

There's one more point, another way in which we do not own the e-books we have "bought."

The seller retains the power to delete the books we have "bought" from our devices and accounts at any time and with no prior notice. The seller can't come into my house and take back a print book I've bought, but the seller can, and in the case of Amazon, has entered the customer's virtual "house" to remove a book the customer has paid for in good faith.

Why exactly am I supposed to regard an error-ridden, restricted-use, can't-count-on-keeping-it-if-seller-decides-otherise e-book as having the same price value as a print book? Could you explain that one to me again?

When your customers are telling you they're unhappy, that's information you need to hear. It's not a useful response to tell them their complaints come from an unjustified sense of entitlement, nor to talk about all you put into the product--especially when your customers can plainly see that that extra work plainly didn't get done. You are asking us to part with our entertainment money for your product. I can take that money and go to the movies, or buy music on iTunes, or go out for ice cream, or take my dog to the local indoor dog park. Why should I spend that money on the probably-temporary use of books you don't bother to edit properly after file conversion, and which you restrict the portability of because you think I might be a thief?

And no, the fact that I am still buying some books doesn't mean that I am happy or satisfied, that your prices are justified, or that you are not losing sales you could otherwise have. I'm not arguing for $0.99 books; they make me nervous. I'm confident that they, at least, have not been well-edited. I am arguing for prices that reflect what you're really offering us, and if that's not a properly edited and proof-read book that I can read anywhere that is convenient for me, and that I can expect to keep permanently, the price had better reflect that.

There's certainly a sense of entitlement affecting this discussion--but it's coming from the publishing side.